Some call Puget Sound “the American Serengeti,” home to a wide variety of whale species – humpback whales, minke whales, gray whales, and of course resident, transient and offshore killer whales.
But naturalists aboard the Chilkat Express saw and captured photographs of something even many long-time whale watchers and researchers have never seen in the inland waters of Washington State – a fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus). The juvenile fin was spotted 11:00 am Thursday, September 2, 2015, apparently feeding about three miles south of Minor Island in north Puget Sound.
“Fin whales have a very distinctive exhalation,” explains Dr. Jonathan Stern, Professor of Marine Biology at San Francisco State University whose done studies on fin whales off Kodiak Island, Alaska and in the Bering Sea. “That’s how we knew this wasn’t a minke or humpback whale. Fins have a lingering blow that is very unique. This definitely appears to be a young fin whale, healthy but a bit thin, with lots of Pennella (parasitic copepods). This is a very interesting sighting.”
The fin whale is the second-largest creature to live on Earth, behind the blue whale. Adult fins can reach 85 feet and 75 tons and live up to 90 years. Listed as an Endangered Species in the U.S., they once were common in the Salish Sea until very targeted and intensive commercial hunting off Vancouver Island essentially extirpated the local population – much like it did the humpbacks here. The hunts stopped and in the last several years, after a generation or more in diaspora, humpbacks have returned to these waters in full force, delighting researchers and whale watchers. The eastern north Pacific population, also known as the Hawai’i humpbacks, has recently been taken off the Endangered Species list. The first whale spotted regularly here was “Big Mama,” who has since brought in several of her calves.
“There always has to be that pioneer, that first one in to literally test the waters, and maybe this little fin whale is that pioneer,” explains Michael Harris of Puget Sound Express, who’s also a longtime Wildlife Specialist for ABC News and an Emmy Award-winning wildlife filmmaker. “We had Big Mama usher in the ‘Humpback Comeback,’ and before that we had a gray whale we named ‘Patch’ start coming down to south Whidbey Island every spring for the ghost shrimp. We’ve seen Patch now for 23 straight years, and there’s about a dozen more grays who’ve followed his lead. We really know very little about this fin whale – we don’t even know if it’s healthy or not – but a lot of us are hoping that he, or she, is that first fin in, with many more to come.”
With an estimated 10,000 freighters and tankers transiting the Salish Sea every year, this juvenile fin whale and others to come will need to navigate quite a perilous path to recolonization. Large whales like fins are particularly prone to ship strikes, and because the sound of approaching ships is directed behind the ship and not forward, they’re often unaware of the danger.
“Sadly, the only time we ever see fin whales in these waters is when they’re stuck on the bow of an incoming ship,” continues Harris. “This may sound a little funny, but it’s really cool to see a live one out there for a change.”